Envy & Inspiration: The Friendship of Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield

Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf

Literary mythology has often portrayed Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield as bitter rivals, but they were close friends and, for the most part, mutually supportive writing colleagues.

The rivalry between the two brilliant writers served as inspiration to both, a spur to do better. Virginia said of Katherine, “I was jealous of her writing. The only writing I have ever been jealous of.”

In October 1917, Virginia Woolf recorded in her diary her first, decidedly mixed impressions of fellow writer Katherine Mansfield. Katherine “stinks like a civet cat that had taken to street walking,” she wrote. “In truth, I’m a little shocked by her commonness at first sight; lines so hard & cheap. However, when this diminishes, she is so intelligent & inscrutable that she repays friendship.”

Despite the snobbishness and rancor of this entry, the two women formed a friendship that would be incredibly important to both, especially from 1917 to 1920. According to Virginia Woolf’s biographer Hermione Lee, it was a friendship that was “intimate but guarded, mutually inspiring but competitive.” It was based on admiration, rivalry, envy, and respect, and would continue to affect Virginia long after Katherine’s death in 1923.

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Virginia Woold and Katherine Mansfield

Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield
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An unlikely friendship

Virginia and Katherine had heard of each other long before they met, and were eventually introduced in February 1917 by Lytton Strachey, Virginia’s fellow Bloomsbury writer and friend. He had met Katherine at Garsington Manor in Oxfordshire, during a literary salon held by English aristocrat Lady Ottoline Morrell.

Katherine pleaded with him to introduce her to Virginia, saying that she wanted to meet the author more than anyone else, and Lytton passed this along to Virginia — along with a rather mean description of Katherine’s “ugly impressive mask of a face — cut in wood, with brown hair and brown eyes very far apart, and a sharp and slightly vulgarly-fanciful intellect sitting behind it.”

At first glance, the two women were an unlikely pair of friends. Katherine was six years younger than Virginia and had a colonial background in New Zealand, while Virginia’s family was firmly entrenched in the English upper-middle classes. Katherine embraced her sexuality and bohemian tendencies, while Virginia shied away from intimacy.

Katherine was already making a name for herself as a writer — many of her short stories were published in the little magazines of the period, and her collection In a German Pension had been published in 1911. By then, Virginia had only recently published her first novel, The Voyage Out, and wasn’t as well known.

However, they did have some things in common. Both were married; Katherine had been living with John Middleton Murry since 1911 and would marry him in 1918, while Virginia had been married to Leonard Woolf since 1912. Both were childless and both battled with illness: Katherine had arthritis as well as the tuberculosis that ultimately killed her; Virginia had mental breakdowns and violent headaches that dogged her all her life.

Perhaps most importantly, though, they shared a dedication to their work, to the craft of writing and the “precious art” of fiction, and it was this that Virginia, in particular, would keep coming back when other aspects of their friendship seemed to be “founded on quicksand.”


“I threw my darling to the wolves” 

Despite her reservations, Virginia immediately saw that Katherine was an ideal candidate for the Hogarth Press, still a relatively new venture for her and Leonard. She initially agreed to meet Katherine to “get a story from her,” and invited her to dinner.

They discussed the possibility of the Hogarth Press publishing Katherine’s short story “Prelude” (then called “The Aloe”). Further meetings quickly followed, during which Katherine met Leonard and Virginia’s sister Vanessa Bell, and Virginia met Katherine’s husband John Middleton Murry.

Almost immediately, they began constructing images of each other. Virginia emphasized Katherine’s tough brashness, epitomized in the “civet cat” diary entry, while Katherine focused on Virginia’s fragility, writing to Ottoline Morrell that she had felt “the strange, trembling, glinting quality of her mind.”

At the same time, both were courting the other: Katherine wrote seductively, “My God I love to think of you, Virginia, as my friend.” Virginia and Leonard accepted a heavily edited version of “The Aloe” as “Prelude” for the Hogarth Press.

Katherine was both delighted at the acceptance and annoyed at the cuts, writing to her friend Dorothy Brett, “I threw my darling to the wolves and they ate it and served me up so much praise in a golden bowl that I couldn’t help feeling gratified.”


“An oddly complete understanding”

This signified the start of Katherine’s influence on Virginia’s work and writing, which Virginia appreciated and resented all at once. “Prelude” was a fragmented story, an entire family history caught in intense moments of experience. It coincided with Virginia’s reading of modernist authors such as Joyce and Eliot, and her debate with herself about modernism and “the essential thing” in fiction.

She began to see similarities in the way she and Katherine approached their writing: both wanted to work through intense short pieces, without what they saw as the egotism of James Joyce or Dorothy Richardson. They wanted to explore consciousness in a more fluid and organic way than May Sinclair, for example. It was Katherine’s writing, in particular, that would influence Virginia later in Jacob’s Room and The Waves.

By the autumn of 1917, Katherine had developed the first symptoms of tuberculosis (also called consumption) and left England for the first of many lonely, miserable winters abroad. It was also the first of many gaps in her friendship with Virginia, but in May 1918, when she returned to England, they had a “most satisfactory & fascinating” renewal of their friendship.

Virginia eagerly sought out the “oddly complete understanding” between them that she felt was founded solely on Katherine’s love of writing, while Katherine also enjoyed and was inspired by Virginia’s company: “She was very nice … She does take the writing business seriously and she is honest about it & thrilled by it. One can’t ask more.”

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Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf

You may also enjoy: 
Beyond the Legend:
Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West’s Love Affair & Friendship

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“Prelude,” jealousy, and silence

The publication of “Prelude” in July 1918, precipitated more spats between them. Katherine and Murry were cross because both Virginia and Leonard disliked their chosen cover design, and while Virginia championed the book to friends who were less than enthusiastic (“Katherine is the very best of women writers—always of course passing over one fine but very modest example”), she was also jealous of Katherine’s writing.

“Tell me what you think of it,” she implored Vanessa, “& should you say that you don’t like it as much as “Kew Gardens” [the short story she was working on at the time], I shan’t think less highly of you; but my jealousy, I repeat, is only a film on the surface beneath which is nothing but pure generosity.”

Despite this, Virginia often visited Katherine at her “tall, ugly villa” in Hampstead during the autumn of 1918. She often came away with mixed feelings, and much preferred the company of Katherine alone to that of Katherine and Murry together. She was uneasy with Murry, and later she would remember him as “squirming and oozing a sort of thick motor oil in the background.”

That winter Katherine stayed in England but contacted no one. In the absence of any letters from her, Virginia assumed that they had quarreled, and tried to work out how in her diary:

“It is at this moment extremely doubtful whether I have the right to class her among my friend … Upstairs I have letters in which she speaks of finding the thought of me a joy, dwelling upon my writing with excitement; I have letters making appointments, pressing for visits, adding postscripts of thanks & affection to visits already paid. But the last is dated December, & it is now February. The question interests, amuses, & also slightly, no, very decidedly, pains me …”

A brief reconciliation in the spring was cut short by Katherine’s illness. By August 1919 was desperately ill with tuberculosis — sick enough to say goodbye to all her London friends before setting off for the Italian Riviera. To Virginia, she wrote, “Do not think I am forgetful of you …You would not believe me if you knew how often you are in my heart & mind. I love thinking of you.”

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Night and Day by Virginia Woolf

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A poor review of Night and Day

In the autumn of 1919, their friendship was severely tested once again by a poor review that Katherine wrote of Virginia’s latest novel, Night and Day. In a November edition of the little magazine Athenaeum, she wrote:

“We had thought that this world had vanished forever, that it was impossible to find on the great ocean of literature a ship that was unaware of what had been happening. Yet here is Night and Day, fresh, new and exquisite, a novel in the tradition of the English novel. In the midst of our admiration it makes us feel old and chill. We had never thought to look upon its like again!”

In her letters to Murry, she angrily wrote of the novel’s “lie in the soul” and “intellectual snobbery,” complaining at how it ignored the impact of World War I and dragged the reader back to a world that had vanished. She also revealed her jealousy of Virginia’s domestic life and marriage, writing bitterly, “That’s one thing I shall grudge Virginia all her days — that she & Leonard were together.”

Virginia, understandably, was hurt and furious. She took no account of Katherine’s illness or the bitter, depressed state of mind that had produced the review, and took it very much to heart, writing in her diary that it made her feel like “a decorous elderly dullard.”

She was further angered and dismayed by a curt note Katherine sent on her return to England: “I would be delighted if you’d care to come & see me one afternoon, but I am grown very dull.”

She did, however, make the effort to visit Katherine. They quickly fell to talking about writing just as they always did, and things thawed between them to the point that Virginia felt she could raise the subject of Night and Day — which Katherine now called “an amazing achievement.”

When pressed, Katherine did allude to the book’s omission of World War I and her feeling that it was somehow a false portrayal of life. Virginia admitted to finding such an honest appraisal refreshing, and later wrote in her diary, “To no one else can I talk in the same disembodied way about writing …”

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Katherine Mansfield

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The last overtures of friendship

Later, when Katherine left for Menton in August 1920, Virginia wrote of  “… the blankness of not having her to talk to … A woman caring as I care for writing is rare enough I suppose to give me the queerest sense of echo coming back to me from her mind the second after I’ve spoken.”

This notion of intimacy blossomed in Orlando a few years later “when it seemed as if the doors of each mind stood wide open to the other so that they could pass in and out with perfect freedom — he taking the words from her lips, or the other way about.”

Virginia recorded their last conversation, in which they’d talked about the different ways in which they perceived themselves: “I said how my own character seemed to cut out a shape like a shadow in front of me. This she understood (I give it as an example of her understanding) & proved it by telling me that she thought this bad: one ought to merge into things.”

She added, “Strange how little we know our friends,” and wondered if Katherine would write. Katherine did not. But by the early spring of 1921, she was so miserable in France that Murry asked Virginia to write to her.

Virginia obliged, sending a gossipy, intimate, funny letter that also pleaded for a return to their old friendship: “Please, Katherine, let us try to write to each other.” She received no reply, and that seemed to mark the end of their friendship.

Virginia never quite forgave Katherine’s silence and seemed to take great pleasure in disparaging her. She maintained she was glad when Katherine didn’t win the Hawthornden Prize in May 1922; she was harsh about Katherine’s book The Garden Party. She didn’t think of going to see Katherine when she returned, briefly, to London in the summer of 1922.


Katherine’s death and a postumous “friendship”

Tragically Katherine died from her illness in January 1923. She was just thirty-four years old. It was, in a way, the start of a new, posthumous friendship, one driven by Virginia’s remorse and regret. Virginia felt that there was “no point in writing … Katherine won’t read it. Katherine’s my rival no longer. There’s no competitor.”

For years afterward, she would continue to judge herself against Katherine in her writing: Katherine, she knew, had written in her journals of writing from deep feeling, and in her diary Virginia asked herself, “Am I writing The Hours [the early title of Mrs. Dalloway] from deep emotion? … Or do I write essays about myself?”

According to Hermione Lee, “Katherine haunted her as we are haunted by people we have loved, but with whom we have not completed our conversation, with whom we have unfinished business.”

When Virginia finished writing Mrs. Dalloway, her thoughts immediately turned to Katherine. With this novel, she felt she had finally “beaten” her old rival, but wrote in her diary, “But I stick to it; K. & I had our relationship; & never again shall I have one like it.”

Further reading:

  • Virginia Woolf by Hermione Lee (Vintage, 1997)
  • Katherine Mansfield: A Secret Life by Claire Tomalin (Penguin, 2003)
  • A Secret Sisterhood: The Literary Friendships of Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot,
    and Virginia Woolf
    by Emma Claire Sweeney and Emily Midorikawa (Mariner Books, 2018)

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Contributed by Elodie Barnes. Elodie is a writer and editor with a serious case of wanderlust. Her short fiction has been widely published online, and is included in the Best Small Fictions 2022 Anthology published by Sonder Press. She is Books & Creative Writing Editor at Lucy Writers Platform, she is also co-facilitating What the Water Gave Us, an Arts Council England-funded anthology of emerging women writers from migrant backgrounds. She is currently working on a collection of short stories, and when not writing can usually be found planning the next trip abroad, or daydreaming her way back to 1920s Paris. Find her online at  Elodie Rose Barnes

2 Responses to “Envy & Inspiration: The Friendship of Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield”

  1. Wonderful article. I admire both of these writers tremendously and I’ve always been moved by their connection. By the way, Katherine was 34 when she died (“Tragically Katherine died from her illness in January 1923. She was just ____ years old.”).

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